Every Student Podcast: Unity Taylor-Hill
What can the lessons learned in founding a school teach us about learning needs? Anzac Park’s Unity Taylor-Hill on the Every Student Podcast.
What can the lessons learned in founding a school teach us about learning needs? Anzac Park’s Unity Taylor-Hill on the Every Student Podcast.
Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today I’m joined by Unity Taylor-Hill. Unity is the foundation principal at Anzac Park Public School in Cammeray in Sydney and it is one of our really innovative primary schools in NSW Education. Unity started her teaching career at South Coogee Public School and within three years was recruited to relieving assistant principal. She was a highly respected principal at Killara Public School, she holds a Masters of Education Specialising in Curriculum and Teaching. In 2018 she was recognised with an ACEL Leadership Award. Welcome to the podcast Unity.
Thank you, Mark.
You are currently working in the department as a director of the Futures Learning Unit and we will come to talk about that in a minute. I first got to you and I think lots of people have got to know you by your leadership as the first foundation principal of Anzac Park Public School. Tell us a little bit about Anzac Park, where do we find it and what is it like?
Anzac Park is a new build school that opened in Cammeray in 2016. I was appointed to principal there in Term 4 of 2015 and at that time we were working on a temporary site at Crows Nest TAFE and we were welcoming 76 Kindergarten students across four classes. Moved into the school in June 2016 with our 76 students and we have grown really rapidly. We have gone from 76 to 640 students currently, massive growth over four years. We have enough space for just over 1,000 students.
One of the really interesting things about visiting Anzac Park is building a school for a thousand students – it is a pretty small site.
It is, it is just less than a hectare. One of the first of the multi-storey schools and it is one of the first schools, I understand from an infrastructure point of view, that moved away from that cookie-cutter model of school design. It was the first time that the architects were able to start thinking about how classrooms can support student learning and what we need to see in classrooms to support our learners. Particularly looking at light and how students move around the school were really prioritised.
If we walk into Anzac Park if you haven’t been there before, a lot of students, a relatively small site. How does it look different to a regular school?
We have learning spaces that enable co-teaching. We have students working across with either two or three teachers and whilst what we do at Anzac Park could really happen at any school, it is really the people in the school that makes it an innovative place.
It is interesting, that site was the old bowling club.
I remember going there to one of my daughter’s ballet concerts which lasted for hours, they were on stage for forty-five seconds. It was the ability for the department at the time with this big squeeze on enrolments on the North Shore to try and find any site in order to put up a school. It is over four storeys, a lot of the play space is on the roof or in the open areas, there is a park across the road but basically, we are going to see more of these innovative designs particularly around schools that are in already established areas. It is one of Australia’s most established areas since white settlement, the North Sydney area where you are operating. It is a rare opportunity to start a school, this doesn’t happen too often. Tell us what your initial thoughts were when you got told it was going to be you?
I was very happy at Killara Public School, it is a beautiful primary school on Sydney’s North Shore but that opportunity to start a school from scratch really is something that happens once in a career. Certainly jumped at the opportunity to take a school from the beginning. In education, we can often have what I would call those sacred cows, things that you always do just because that is the way we do things. Being able to move away from or create my own sacred cows for our school community and see what it is that we felt was important was a really nice thing about it.
How do you go about doing that at the beginning? Even at the beginning, you don’t even have much of a school community? How do you think through what you want a new school to be?
From my perspective, it was important to be able to take my experience in education as well as my research background and combine that with what we know will have an impact on education in the 21st Century. It really was that combination of what we know works with what it is that students need in education now, what is it if we are going to start from scratch? What is it that we feel is important for our students?
What are some of those cornerstones that you see as Anzac Park? There is a big push on personalised learning there. How does that work in practice?
We do have an emphasis on personalising learning. We believe that no matter where a student is we need to move them forward with their learning regardless of that starting point and by doing that it is important for our teachers to have a really strong knowledge of what their students are learning and where their students are up to. We take a lot of time, we got rid of staff meetings and instead we have ‘analysing impact meetings’ every Thursday morning where teachers bring down samples of student work and they moderate and they look at what the key features are across those work samples and they look at what they can do in their classrooms to move those students forward and to track them. And it is also an opportunity as a school community to take collective responsibility for every student moving forward. We have our learning support teacher, we have our gifted and talented teacher being able to see those students that we need to push forward and support at a whole school collective level. Also really important for us that I think as an adult, I personally find if I don’t have a goal or something that I am working towards I find that sense of achievement is really hard to find. We encourage our students to know what their learning goals are and for them to be able to articulate that so that they can celebrate that achievement and what the purpose of their learning is and how they can move forward.
You are quite transparent about that. I have been in different schools where yes, there has been data walls, but they are tucked away only the adults see it. When you go to your school students really have a clear understanding about where they are up to and what their next goals are.
Yes, absolutely. We had at the beginning of last year around 40% of our Kindergarten students at the end of Term 1 were able to articulate their learning goals in literacy and that moved up to 94% by the end of Term 4 so we have Kindergarten children really articulately able to talk about what it is that they have achieved and what it is that they need to focus on to improve in literacy and numeracy.
One of the things about personalised learning, personalised pathways and this collecting of evidence. I have heard some feedback from teachers that say “look we just spend all our time collecting evidence and data and it feels like it can be more of a burden on teachers”. How have your teachers dealt with this?
I think it depends on what you are doing with the data and what you are using it for. I think if you are just collecting it for collecting it sake or for plotting students just for updating the progression then you don’t see the value in it. But when you are using it as the cornerstone for how you’re differentiating, how you’re programming and how you’re meeting the needs of students it becomes a really invaluable tool for the teachers to be able to have. We also spend a lot of time making sure that within our weekly programs we allow time for conferencing so that teachers and students can spend that time with their learning and with their teacher talking about their goals and where they are up to. As the students get older they become responsible for collecting that evidence themselves. The students in Stage 2 and Stage 3 have QR codes in the classroom that link to their learning progressions and what it is that they have achieved and they know that they have to collect evidence so that the next time they have a conference with their teacher this is the samples of work to demonstrate that they have achieved that goal and that they are ready to move on.
One of the interesting things that you talk about with the school is developing these ‘creative connectors’ which is about how you think through programming. Talk a little bit about that.
Conceptual framework has always been really important for me as an educator and teaching through concepts rather than topic-based teaching programs. Conceptual learning provides students with that opportunity to organise that knowledge and that understanding within that larger framework. Particularly when we have knowledge at the tip of our finger on our phones, on our computers, the memorisation of knowledge doesn’t become as important for our students but how they use that knowledge is really important. Through looking through a conceptual lens we are able to synthesise that information at that high level. For us, at Anzac Park, we have taken the syllabuses of English, science, geography, history, PDHPE and the creative arts and we framed those around eight big questions and within that the concepts that leave to answering those big questions. At the moment at Anzac Park, students across Kindergarten to Year 6 are working on the question “why does it work” and looking at that through a scientific lens. Our students are exploring electricity through that idea of transformation and how it works right through to our Kindergarten students through English and understanding genre and theme within their novels.
One of the critiques you can sometimes have, particularly when you have these large learning spaces, lots of children learning, adults about, lots of different activity and also when students have strong agency over their learning the way you described, there is a concern that explicit teaching disappears that as part of this we still need to sit children down and deliberatively teach them and engage them. How does that fit in?
Absolutely, I think quality teaching is a really important aspect. We know that is what makes a difference and it is wrong to assume that in an open-plan collaborative classroom that there isn’t that room for explicit teaching. I actually think there is more opportunity because there is more than one educator who is able to meet those needs. You’ll see in our classroom we have up to six co-teaching models that our teachers plan so that they are thinking about how the two educators or three educators in the room can be best utilised to meet those needs and they will often be providing that explicit teaching with a smaller group at the level that they are working on whilst the other students are working on perhaps more student-driven work in other parts of the learning space.
It is explicit teaching but not perhaps as we may have experienced it – a classroom of kids twenty-five sitting in a row being spoken at by a teacher – but smaller in a sense, more intimate.
At the level that they are working on.
Unusually, I think, at Anzac Park, we will hear discussions about caves and campfires and watering holes. What are they are where does all that come from?
David Thornburg has been working on what he calls these ‘learning archetypes’ since the 1990s and that is an understanding of how we learn and using those archetypes to describe those different learning behaviours. We have taken those on at Anzac Park and we use those metaphors of cave, campfire and watering holes where cave is that opportunity that we all need when we are silent, when we are reflecting, when we are focusing on our work. We have campfires when we are learning from an expert and that might be a teacher or it might be another student, it might be through a VC connection with someone somewhere across the globe. We also have our watering holes where students are working in a collaborative way and what is important for us at Anzac Park is not only that our learning spaces are organised into those cave, campfire and watering holes but we explicitly teach the children the learning behaviours that are required in those different spaces. What is it that you need to do as a learner in a campfire to get the best out of that opportunity, how do you best collaborate with students and your peers in a watering hole and what do you need to do within a cave. And we find students, when you start talking to them about their learning dispositions and their learning behaviours, they will recognise within themselves ‘I really like working in a cave space’ and being able to have that opportunity to say let’s try some watering hole and what can we do to support you in being a more collaborative learner is a really powerful opportunity for students to have control over, and an understanding of, how they learn best. We see in a lot of our agile work environments those opportunities for cave, campfire and watering hole as a natural part of today’s work environment.
I am really interested in the professional development challenge here because you have moved from 76 students to 640 students. That’s a big population increase, it also means a big staffing increase. You are going to have staff who are coming in who have been operating in more traditional school environments, certainly not a lot of caves, campfires and watering holes where they have been. How do you scale up your staff to work in the environment that you are leading and your leadership team has created here at Anzac Park?
What has been really important for us at Anzac Park is that we have had that really clear vision of what we want. We have developed our vision for learning and decided what our five key drivers were going to be and what it was that we wanted to value as a professional community. For me as the leader what has been one of the most fulfilling parts of being principal at Anzac Park is being able to give that vision to the team to co-create together. We did start as a very small team and my assistant principal and I developed that vision for learning and what those priorities were but now we give that to our aspiring leaders and our leadership team and our teams of teachers to grow and to flourish. And what we are doing was certainly not something that perhaps we envisaged in our first year but for me, that co-creating of what we do as a collaborative is what is really important.
Staff who have come in have helped change and shape what you would have originally envisaged?
Yes giving it to them to develop together and to have that ownership of what it is that we value.
What about parents? One of the challenges of working in education is that everyone is an expert on education, everybody went to school. Very few of your parents will have experienced the kind of school model that you are building at Anzac Park. How open are they? Is there a sense that they understand this when they sign up? How much work have you needed to do to explain what you are trying to do?
Explaining it and talking with parents about why we do what we do is always an open conversation that we have but certainly, one that they know and understand when they‘re enrolling their child and overwhelmingly it has been a really positive parent community that we have at Anzac Park. I had in our early years a parent who works for one of our big tech companies come in and say this is the only school that looks like my workplace and I don’t want anything else for my child to prepare them for their life than a school that reflects what society looks like now. We have such support for our programs and for what it is that we are doing because they see as a parent community the importance of what our challenges are.
Let’s talk a little bit about preparing students for a changing world. Two areas of focus that you have got there are around learning for life but also a real focus on innovation. Let’s talk about those general capabilities as well. How do you embed critical and creative thinking, communication skills, collaboration skills into the working operation of the school?
That has been another one of our really key drivers of Anzac Park and we took those general capabilities from the Melbourne Declaration and we created our own what we call “learning for life” where we have six capabilities of imagine, reflect, persevere, question, connect and collaborate and in doing that we also developed a continuum from Kindergarten to Year 6 of what does it look like to achieve when you are persevering, what does that look like in Kindergarten and what are our expectations of our students in Year 6. In doing that we are able to report to parents how their child is thinking critically and thinking creatively and we value how those dispositions are in our students just as much as we do in literacy and numeracy.
On that, part of the interesting debate is that we know how to test for literacy and numeracy, testing for creativity, critical thinking, collaboration is harder. How do you measure progress in those areas?
That is really a challenge that we continue and the team are co-creating as we speak at Anzac Park how we develop that. What we are doing at the moment is we are thinking about those teaching skills and thinking about what those abilities are and building those programs into our teaching and learning so that it is not an add-on but it is a natural part of how we start our programming, those capabilities and building them in so that when we are assessing student knowledge we also have those opportunities to assess those capabilities.
One of the interesting things I find in talking with you and thinking through what you are developing at Anzac Park we currently have a big curriculum review that is taking place in NSW, Geoff Masters the head of ACER is doing that and there will be discussion papers and the like released on that later in the year. Most schools, most of the feedback that has come back has said school curriculum is overcrowded and to a sense, it is out of date. You seem to have found this time within the school curriculum to really do all this new stuff if you like under the constraints of the old how have you done that?
I think it comes back to that creating connectors and those frameworks. Being able to find where we can synthesise the existing curriculum and find where we can teach in a transdisciplinary way. But it is also thinking about what it is that we value and starting there. When we value those 21st Century capabilities and we value that we want students to be able to think creatively then we build learning experiences that provide those opportunities for students and focus on rich learning tasks for our students rather than busy work or work that we have always done just because that is the way we have done it.
That is a story I hear a bit at some of our schools that seem to be pushing most aggressively; that there is space within but you have got to do the work, you have got to do the work as a collaborative team in order to do that. You talked about the parent from the technology company you go to your school coding and robotics I suppose you see a bit of that in primary schools around the state, design thinking, engineering. How you are thinking through technology and your involvement with technology and teaching students?
We employ a STEAM specialist at Anzac Park and he is able to work and co-teach with every teacher from Kindergarten to Year 6 so that we can really build that capacity of all of our teachers in STEAM programming. He has an expertise in coding and robotics and electronics and is able to build that in but doing so in a meaningful way. It is not an add-on but as part of those teaching and learning programs that they are doing. We also have that strong emphasis on that engineering and that design thinking. You will often see in John’s classroom in the STEAM hub a huge mess of students as they co-create. Last year our students in Stage 2 were looking at heat absorption so were creating solar ovens using cardboard, black card, aluminium foil and they were using it to create an oven and they were given a piece of garlic bread as their assessment task to see how quickly the garlic bread would melt at the end of term. It can be a very messy place but it is that creating and testing and designing that has been really important to those programs.
It is interesting you say that it can be a messy place. When I first visited it was small, the school was brand new, it looked spectacular. There was a lot of space because there were relatively few kids. Now you have got the challenge of scaling and the challenge isn’t just involved in eventually having 1,000 students in a school of less than a hectare. You will have a student density of few schools in the country to match but also it is keeping up with this innovative approach to teaching and learning and innovative approach to exploring the curriculum at scale. How does that scaling challenge work for you? Are you worried about what you could do with 150 kids is a very different challenge with 1,000 kids.
It is the amazing educators that I have the privilege to work with and the teams that we are creating and that opportunity to own that innovation for our teaching community. Our Stage 3 leader at the moment is incredibly progressive and inspiring assistant principal and he at the moment is transforming our rooftop into a middle year space where he has just opened in the last week a dedicated STEAM hub for the students so that when they are designing they can just go in there and work on those programs without needing to go down to the STEAM hub by creating different spaces for different purposes right through the school.
One final question on Anzac Park. It is pretty high profile, whenever we chat you have had more politicians, more department heads, national visitors, international visitors what is it like doing all this stuff in the spotlight the way you have had to do it?
It has been a really special part of being at Anzac Park and we have seen a lot of other schools starting to take their journey particularly into moving into innovative learning environments across NSW and across the country and we have really welcomed that opportunity to share what we do. For educators to be able to see in action and to see that it is possible I think is really important.
Could you have done it back at Killara? If you think about what you have done now beautiful new design, new building, but fundamentally what you are doing around teaching and learning could it be done anywhere?
With that shared vision yes absolutely. I think that at Killara and in that community absolutely a push as parents a real passion for their child and for seeing achievement and making sure that their child was best placed to succeed in the 21st century so absolutely something that can be scalable and something that people can believe in.
We talked about it before briefly it is a pretty conservative part of the world the North Shore of Sydney and you would think that parents would have a conservative view on education, not wanting to take too many risks with their child, we don’t want to experiment with our kids. How do you provide that reassurance that even though it is different and it looks different you are still very confident that you are on track with the learning of their children?
A few key things we have. Parent partnerships are really important for us. Just as our students know what their learning goals are, our parents have access to those literacy and numeracy progressions so that they can see at any time how their child is going in literacy and numeracy. We also provide opportunities for parents to come into classrooms and see what it is that students are learning but it is also from the students themselves. We utilise things such as Seesaw and other programs so that children can share their work but overwhelmingly what I hear from parents is that their child loves to come to school, their child is engaged and excited about what they are doing. And I think as a parent when you see that your child is happy and learning and interested you’re happy with what that school is doing for their child.
Finally, you are still the principal there, you are taking a little bit of a spell away from the school every day to work with the department as Director in the Futures Learning unit. What does that work involve?
It has been really interesting to have a look at education from that system perspective. Futures Learning is currently going through a bit of a rebrand and has been renamed as School Learning Environments and Change.
That is a mouthful.
It is, so let’s go with SLEC, another acronym. The work of the SLEC team is really looking at how we can support school leaders and teachers to work effectively within these innovative learning environments. As I said we see School Infrastructure creating some amazing spaces across NSW but for teachers to work effectively in those spaces takes a concerted effort from the school community in terms of professional learning and making sure that the teachers are ready to teach in those spaces the way they were designed. For me, the SLEC team is a really exciting place to be at the moment thinking about how we can support those school communities. At a personal level I find that as principal we have a lot of autonomy in what we are doing but in a director’s position it is more of that collective autonomy and it comes not so much what I can create as leader at Anzac Park but what can we create at a system level to support schools across NSW.
A lot of the thinking here what is the value of being in a system and what is the learning that we can get from the work that you have done at Anzac Park. And how will that influence – we have got $6.5 billion worth of new building that is happening given the growth in the state and we have a lot of ambitious school leadership teams at long-established schools. Rather than everyone discovering it all again, how can we learn from the expertise? Thanks for your contribution there and thanks for all you are doing at Anzac Park and thanks for what you are doing for the children of NSW in your care. Unity Taylor-Hill, thanks for joining us on the Every Student Podcast.
Thank you for listening to this episode of every student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter at NSW Education on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again and I will catch you next time.